All children are God's children and whatever their strengths, needs, or disabilities, we must make it clear to them and to their families that they belong to the Church community and belong as active participants in our religious education programs! Finding ways to make each child feel included and valuable is an important mission, but it is not without challenges.
Educators must do their research and actively look for ways to help all children grow as Jesus’ disciples and to encourage all children participate authentically in the Mass, in the Sacraments, and in faith formation programs.
We must actively look for ways to help ALL children grow as Jesus' disciples!
Inclusion is creating a learning environment where the instructional goals and objectives and the instructional activities are made accessible in some way to all types of learners, including individuals with special needs. Inclusion is an environment where every student has an opportunity to grow, contribute in a meaningful way, and achieve success. It is an understanding by all members that everyone in the community truly “belongs.”
Looking for best practices that promote the inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in the full life of the Church?
Watch this On Demand webinar hosted by Charleen Katra, an expert in ministry for people with disabilities. Charleen shares strategies and resources to successfully include diverse learners in faith formation, especially individuals who have intellectual and/or developmental delays.
Catechesis in an inclusive education model can provide a lot of exciting opportunities for catechists who enjoy being creative and who have confidence in their ability to make instruction accessible and objectives attainable for many types of learners.
Every person, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not, has special needs as a learner. Self-reflection about what type of learner you are is a helpful exercise to thinking broadly about the special needs of each and every learner.
Think about a time you had to learn something new: how to use your new computer, how to put together a child’s toy, or how to find a place you haven’t been before. There are strategies that make it easy for you to learn new things and there are strategies that aren’t effective for you at all. Some things come easily to you and some things take more time.
Every person, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not, has special needs as a learner.
For example, you might learn best by simply playing around with your new computer, or by searching for an online video that shows someone else putting that toy together. Maybe, for you, listening to directions via your map application while driving isn’t as helpful as asking someone to draw you a map with some landmarks on it such as, “Take a left at the bakery.”
Once you’ve reflected on your special needs as a learner, you will be better able to understand and recognize the special needs of all of the learners in your religious education program. The children will tell you with their words and behaviors what they need, and you will be better able to listen and relate.
There are a lot of great surveys online that you can give your children to help you identify their strengths and needs as learners, whether or not they have a diagnosed disability. These surveys can give you an idea of what kinds of learners you have in front of you, visual, musical, kinesthetic, and so on. There are also a lot of great parent surveys that parents can use to tell you their thoughts on what kind of learner their child is. Not only do these surveys help you understand your children, but they show families and children that you want to support them and that you value their involvement.
Download a parent survey to share with the parents in your religious education program.
If one of the children in your religious education program has a diagnosed disability, you should learn about that disability so that you can better plan your instruction for them. Ask parents to share any information with you as a starting place.
Other great resources are a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), or 504 Plan, which are legal documents written by a team of experts such as a special education teacher, occupational or speech therapist, and the parents. They will outline the strengths and needs of the student as well as any accommodations that are needed to help the child gain success in the learning environment. A parent may be able to share these documents with directors or catechists.
While an IEP, BIP, or 504 Plan is helpful, you don’t need one of these to offer accommodations to children. With the help of the parents and supportive colleagues, you can make a list of strengths and needs of the student. You can outline the goals and objectives of your instruction. Then, you can list accommodations that might help to guide you.
When speaking with families about their child’s disability, remember how much they love their child and how much God loves this child. As with all of God’s children, this child is a messenger of God’s love. Use “with” language. The child isn’t the disability. Saying the disability first sends a message that you don’t “see” the child first. For example, he or she is not an Autistic child. He or she is a person, with Autism.
Also, while you may have suspicions, don’t diagnose children yourself. Only a medical professional can do this with validity. If you suspect a child has a disability, start by telling the parents the strengths of their child. Then speak to the parents about the specific behaviors or struggles you are seeing. Ask if the parents are seeing these challenges as well. Suggest that they speak to their pediatrician about these concerns.
After you’ve communicated with families, you may want to seek further information and then adapt for your learners. Here are some definitions of disabilities and modifications that can be used for some of the different diagnosed disabilities your children might have. You might also want to explore this website that can simulate some learning disabilities for you so that you can better understand what your student with disabilities is experiencing as a learner. The site allows you to “Experience Firsthand” via links for each disability to launch the simulations.
According to Autism Speaks, “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.”
Some children with Autism have difficulty regulating sensory input. Loud sounds, bright lights, and scratchy textures can be unbearable for them in a way many can’t understand. Be sensitive to sensory stimuli that may overwhelm them. Stick to a predictable daily routine as much as possible and prepare the child if there will be a change in the routine.
Social scripts can help provide guidance for responding to various types of social situations. Use a social script to help children with Autism navigate social situations such as taking turns in a game or shaking hands at Mass. Help children with Autism share the sign of peace during Mass with this downloadable social script.
According to Understood for learning and attention issues, “Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) both affect people’s ability to stay focused on things like schoolwork, social interactions, and everyday activities like brushing teeth and getting dressed.”
Give children with ADD or ADHD a schedule of that religious education session activities. Provide short breaks in the schedule. It might help the child to know that after Morning Prayer and Story Time, he or she can walk to the office to check the classroom mailbox. Teach the child the Order of Mass. Just a few minutes of sitting still can seem like hours to a child with ADHD. Let them know that after the two readings, the Gospel, and the Homily, they can take a quick walk to the Church restroom.
With children who need significant help with misbehaviors, identify the specific negative behavior. Then attempt to determine the function of that behavior. For example, is the behavior giving the child a sense of control? Then identify the positive replacement behavior you want to teach the child. Use a chart to help the child keep track of how many times they have successfully used the positive behavior and celebrate progress!
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, “Learning disabilities are neurologically-based processing problems. These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math. They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short-term memory and attention.”
For children with learning disabilities, cut down larger tasks into step-by-step smaller tasks. Give extra time to finish tasks. Teach multiple strategies for solving problems and provide visual aids when instructing and to help children see what a finished product might look like.
Also consider including multisensory learning opportunities in your Catholic faith formation program to ensure that all children are included. A multisensory approach provides countless opportunities to explore faith formation through various mediums and modalities. Using a multisensory approach for catechesis is a best-practice technique to meet the varying needs and abilities of all children, including those with special needs. Read this article for examples of ways to appeal to the all the senses in your faith formation programs in both school or parish.
Invite young children in your religious education class to sit in a circle with you and share a Creation: A Sensory Story Activity. A sensory story is a short story made up of brief sentences that all children are able to enjoy. For each sentence of the story, share a sensory experience with the children. There is no limit to the stories—and exploration of senses that you can incorporate, making sensory stories memorable opportunities, experiences and lessons for all learners.
When working with children with diagnosed disabilities, it is important to not work alone. Reach out to parents and supportive colleagues to help you. Ask the children what helps them and really listen to them. Reflect on your needs and strengths as a learner. This will help you better understand and relate to the children you are working with. Embrace the opportunity to think creatively about each of the children you are helping. Outline specific goals and work to find clever and effective ways to help each child achieve them. Feel blessed that God has called you to help his children, whatever their needs may be, to grow spiritually and to participate authentically in the Church community!